Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Scene from 1939 movie 'The Wizard of Oz'

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

To Find America, Follow the Yellow Brick Road

• July 04, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

New books, movies, and plays keep spilling out of the perennial wellspring of Oz. Each reveals a facet of that fabled land—and of the generation that produces the work.

ALISSA BURGER GREW UP on an Iowa farm, not all that far from Dorothy Gale’s Kansas. So it’s no surprise that, even more than most children of her generation, she was enthralled by the yearly telecast of The Wizard of Oz. “I was absolutely terrified of the sequence where the face of the Wicked Witch pops up in the magic ball,” she recalls. “I would always cover my eyes and scream.”

Burger remains Oz-obsessed decades later, but the fear she felt has been replaced by fascination. In her new book, The Wizard of Oz as American Myth (McFarland, $35), she charts the various incarnations of the story in print, on film and television, and in the theater, and shows how they reflect the changing attitudes of Americans regarding the role of women, race relations, and the idea of “home.” As she pulls back the curtain on this fantastic tale, we realize we’ve really been looking at ourselves.

Author L. Frank Baum

Author L. Frank Baum

Since L. Frank Baum’s original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, appeared in 1900, his magical land has been regularly revisited. To date, 39 authorized sequels have been published, including more than a dozen penned by Baum himself. The first of many stage musicals based on the material opened in 1902; its descendants include the Motown-inspired The Wiz from 1975, and the still-running Wicked, which opened in 2003. The iconic 1939 movie is just the best-known of the more than dozen film adaptations, and two more are on the immediate horizon: the animated Dorothy of Oz, opening this year, and Oz, the Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi’s look at the Wizard’s early life, which arrives in cinemas next spring.

Why so many trips down the Yellow Brick Road? “Everybody knows the story—it’s a familiar touchstone,” says Burger, an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Division at the State University of New York, Delhi. “But there’s so much flexibility there, so much room for reinterpretation.”

Actresses Natalie Daradich and Vicki Noon from musical 'Wicked'

Actresses Natalie Daradich (Good Witch of the North) and Vicki Noon (Wicked Witch of the West) from musical “Wicked,” which reimagined Baum’s wicked witch as a sympathetic character.

Burger explains that Baum’s story follows the basic journey, as laid out by Joseph Campbell, of the mythic hero: the central character leaves home, has fantastic adventures, conquers an enemy, acquires self-knowledge, and returns safely, bearing newfound wisdom. While that describes leading men from Gilgamesh to Bilbo Baggins, Baum conceived this classic scenario in one radically different way: he made his hero a heroine. Baum’s mother-in-law was the feminist leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, and according to Burger, she “was also the person who encouraged him to write down the stories he told to children.” Given their close relationship, it makes sense that the Oz books are “full of pretty strong female characters. Dorothy doesn’t have to be taken care of. Patriarchal power is questioned really dynamically, as we see the Wizard for what he really is”—which is to say, an empty suit.

Granted, at the end of the first book (and the 1939 movie), Dorothy assumes a motherlike role, helping male characters such as the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion find their inner strength. Having done so, she is content to return home to Kansas, presumably to resume the role of dutiful niece. But Baum upends that status quo in his sequels, in which “Dorothy ends up taking Aunt Em and Uncle Henry back to Oz with her, and we see very powerful matriarchal societies—some positive, some negative,” Burger says.

Poster from musical The Wiz

On one level, the story’s various permutations reflect our evolving notions of the proper role of the woman in American society. In the original, the female character who actively seeks power, the Wicked Witch of the West, is a monster who must be destroyed, while the “good girl” heroine is torn between the longing for adventure (somewhere over the rainbow) and safety (there’s no place like home). In The Wiz, “home” is more of a psychological concept than a physical place, while the musical Wicked sets aside the nuclear family in favor of “a fun focus on female friendship.” Rather than representing the archetypes of good and evil, Burger notes, that the “good” and “bad” witches in the phenomenally popular Wicked “are presented as fully fleshed-out, rounded characters that girls really relate to.”

Burger is eager to discover whether Dorothy of Oz will present still more complex versions of these familiar characters. “The message boards on the first trailer were full of comments like ‘This looks really stupid’ and ‘That’s not how Dorothy is supposed to look,’” she says. “Each new incarnation produces that kind of initial backlash, but it gradually becomes another piece of the puzzle.” Or another brick in that golden road.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.